Day Eleven: 27 Tammuz
Who impedes me,
Why can’t I disclose in writing all my thoughts,
The most hidden musings of my soul?33Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook, “Who Impedes Me?” in Abraham Isaac Kook: The Lights of Penitence, The Moral Principles, Lights of Holiness, Essays, Letters, and Poems (Mahwah, nj: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 385.
These words, the opening of Rabbi Abraham Isaac HaKohen Kook’s poem “Who Impedes Me?,” offer a glimpse of man’s spiritual vulnerabilities, vulnerabilities found even in so great a Jewish thinker and mystic. We search for language to reach across the abyss towards God, but so often come up short.
On fast days, we add special tefillot to our regular service to help us cross the abyss, to set the day apart and create a mood of supplication, of withdrawal from the universe of prosaic concerns. Prayer, Rabbi A.J. Heschel once wrote, “is an act consisting of a moment of decision or turning and of a moment of direction.”34Rabbi A.J. Heschel, The Prophets, Vol. ii (New York: Harper, 1962), p. 220. On every fast day, we make a “turn” with a special plea, “Anenu,” inserted during Minĥa, the afternoon service, in the “Shema Kolenu” blessing of the Amida. In Shema Kolenu we pray, ironically, that God listen to our prayers. For all the desires and wishes we utter, our most fervent is that God hear us.
According to Jewish law, this special supplication should be said only by someone who is fasting, because the words combine with the act to create a posture of contrition before God. The “Anenu” prayer echoes the plea for God to listen to us, but heightens it with another demand: answer us. It sounds like hutzpah to demand God’s ear and response, but we do it nonetheless. In the book of Lamentations, Jeremiah asked an irreverent question multiple times: Eikha, why? Had the prophet not asked it, we could not, because we believe in tzidduk hadin, in accepting the justice of our fate, even when we fail to understand it. We do so without question. But Jeremiah did question. He wanted God to explain the destruction of our beautiful city Jerusalem and the stripping of Zion and the anguish of mothers who lost their children. Why? What could justify this? In his memory, we use the same words. We ask God to explain.
The request to be answered may, in some ways, be more powerful than the questions we often ask in the face of tragedy, precisely because “why” can be asked as a rhetorical question of mystery, without expectation of an answer. In Anenu we put God on the spot:
Answer us, Lord, answer us on our Fast Day, for we are in great distress. Look not at our wickedness. Do not hide Your face from us and do not ignore our plea. Be near to our cry; please let Your loving-kindness comfort us. Even before we call to You, answer us…
Whereas we normally ask God to listen, we now redouble our efforts and entreat God in multiple and different ways, hoping that something will be heard, hoping that God will respond.
On Tisha B’Av specifically, we add another special supplication in our Amida, a passage recited only once a year, also during the afternoon service: Naĥem, “console us.” Listen, answer, console. We add this not in our personal petitions, but in the blessing that speaks of the rebuilding of Jerusalem, focusing our pain:
Console, O Lord our God, the mourners of Zion and the mourners of Jerusalem, and the city that is in sorrow, laid waste, scorned and desolate; that grieves for the loss of its children, that is laid waste of its dwellings, robbed of its glory, desolate without inhabitants.
If a person forgets to say this prayer at the correct place, it can be said later during “Shema Kolenu,” the blessing which offers a place to insert personal supplications. In other words, this clause said only once a year should not be bypassed if at all possible. We want people to articulate the specific loss of Jerusalem on Tisha B’Av, and we need God to offer us solace.
To return to Anenu, we ask that God answer us with kindness before we pray. What kind of request is this?
It is always more of a consolation if people understand our pain and reach out to us before we have to articulate our distress. We feel more loved when others can anticipate our feelings rather than when we have to spell them out. It makes us feel like we are the objects of their genuine concern. They have been thinking of us before we even told them of our distress. We find a powerful example of this in the book of Ruth. Ruth lost a husband and then made a choice to leave her homeland, her family and life as she knew it to journey with her mother-in-law to a strange land. Even after she had made an enormous commitment to become Jewish and accept Naomi’s faith, God and people, Ruth is treated as an alien in Bethlehem. She is called the Moabite, a flashback to the life she willingly left. Only Boaz reaches out to her, and acknowledges her commitment:
It has been fully related to me, all that you have done for your mother-in-law since the death of your husband: and how you left your father and your mother, and the land of your birth, and went to a people whom you had not known before. May the Lord recompense your deed, and may a full reward be given to you by the Lord God of Israel, under whose wings you have come to take refuge. (Ruth, 2:11–12)
Boaz emphasizes that God will reward Ruth, even if others do not. He tries to minimize her suffering and alienation at the hands of human beings. God is all-knowing, and God can see beyond petty pigeonholing and labeling. Ruth answers Boaz’s initial kindness with the words, “Why are you so kind to single me out when I am a foreigner?” (ibid. 2:10), and she repeats this theme with a variation: “You are most kind to comfort me and to speak gently to your maidservant – though I am not so much as one of your maidservants” (ibid. 2:13). Ruth had suffered so much isolation that she did not even see herself as worthy of kindness. But when Boaz noticed her, she found the strength to notice herself. When someone acknowledges our distress, we grow stronger through compassion and feel more empowered to confront our suffering. We find a voice.
In Anenu we ask God for kindness as a form of consolation. True kindness is when God reaches out to us before we express pain. Please let Your kindness comfort us, before we call You to answer us…
Kavana for the Day
Anenu prompts us to ask questions that force God to answer, initially focusing on our heartache but then transforming us into problem-solving beings. We fix whatever is broken from the place of our vulnerability. Our brokenness gives us a window into the brokenness of others. John F. Kennedy, in an address to the Irish Parliament, said, “The supreme reality of our time is our indivisibility as children of God and the common vulnerability of this planet.”35John F. Kennedy, speech to a joint session of the Dáil and the Seanad, Dublin, Ireland (28 June 1963). The book of Psalms tells us that the whole world is built on loving-kindness (89:3). Everything is held in place by the glue of small interactions of goodness, of kindness to strangers at the time of their vulnerability. Today do one small act of kindness for someone you don’t know. Help hold up our fragile world.